' ' Cinema Romantico: A Quiet Place

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Quiet Place

A horror movie’s scariest sound is typically no sound at all. Any hack can quiet things down, bang a piano chord on the soundtrack, and make you jump in your seat. “A Quiet Place”, however, does not make you jump in your seat so much as burrow deep into it, because director John Krasinski and his impeccable sound design team have made a movie that is, essentially, all about silence, amplifying it to spotlight it then terrifyingly undercut it. “A Quiet Place” does this by building a slightly future world overrun by monsters that are blind but strong of hearing and ready to swoop in and rip anyone or anything from limb to limb at the slightest sonic provocation. If we don’t know really know the genesis of these creatures that is no less a concern than how Krasinski’s narrative sometimes seems to circumvent its own rules. This is all just a plot to engineer consistent dread and suspense.

That, however, does not stop Krasinski, and his two co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, from trying, not altogether successfully, to wrap a metaphor in the form of parental duty and familial grief around its otherwise lean, mean plot. This strategy is seen immediately in the film’s prologue where the Abbot family of five rummages through an empty pharmacy store in an empty upstate New York town with escalating disturbances of the conspicuous quiet engendering increasing panic in the ranks.This compulsion for quiet is brought home in the pre-credits capper where the family’s youngest son inadvertently draws noisy attention to himself and is devoured by a creature. This is not a spoiler; this is the inciting incident, one that both saddles the film with melancholy and works as the monsters’ introduction.

The film then flashes ahead almost 400 days with the Abbots still reeling from their youngest’s death and hiding out on its farm. If occasionally Krasinski proffers painterly images subtly underlining how traditional gender roles install themselves even in a post-apocalyptic landscape he is just as prone to blunt images ensuring the relay of relevant information, like newspapers taped to walls (“IT’S SOUND!” brays one which plays like the movie’s poster tagline if this was 1950s monochrome). That bluntness affects the film elsewhere. If such scant dialogue suggests spoken words will count, the dialogue winds up as nothing more than verbal slogans taped to a metaphorical wall. The deafness of older daughter Reagan (Millicent Simmonds), meanwhile, is glaringly utilized as a mere plot cohesive.

That she can’t hear lends credence to the sign language employed by the Abbots for communication while her hearing aids are revealed as story seeds waiting to sprout. And while Krasinski niftily evokes the soundlessness of Reagan’s life, he fails to transform this into anything like an actual point-of-view, particularly where emotional spats with her father, Lee (Krasinski), are concerned. In those scenes, alas, Krasinski the actor mistakes, as he does most everywhere else, dull for dour. It feels like a performance waiting for a voiceover to fill it in. As mother Evelyn, Emily Blunt is better. Her facial expressions defined “Sicario”, and they define “A Quiet Place” too, as in various moments she allows exasperation, fear, love, and tough love to dart across her face, and sometimes evinces all four at once. That is to say nothing of her closing shot where, in a remarkably loving yet nasty grin, she sort of becomes Ellen Ripley.

Ripley was a beacon of motherhood. Evelyn is nominally set up as one too seeing as how after the flash forward she has become pregnant. But the impending newborn is ultimately less evocative of a new beginning or tendering of an old wound than a narrative timebomb, one waiting to go off until just the right moment, and which Krasinski booby-traps with additional complications along the way. A nail that appears on a cellar staircase, the camera lingering to let you know in no uncertain terms that this nail will return, made me laugh harder than when Daniel Stern stepped on that nail on the staircase in “Home Alone.” This is not a criticism; this is a compliment. If the sequence is officially dramatic, it also a gloriously entertaining (fun-filled!) actorly showcase in which Blunt makes credible giving birth — birth! — without making a sound.

She is forbidden from making a sound, but the movie is not. If “A Quiet Place”, given the specificities of its world, is ripe for picking through incongruities (or: plot holes), those can predominantly be written off because they are necessary in the name of suspense. The lone incongruity that cannot be dismissed, however, is the aesthetic decision to include a traditional music soundtrack which oddly undermines a movie that cultivates so much of its success by an absence of sound and then sudden intrusion of it. Indeed, unlike the musical score, Krasinski sees fit to include only one pop tune, heard not on the soundtrack, per se, but, in a tender scene, through the earbuds of Evelyn and Lee.

Here the correspondent must confess he failed to watch “A Quiet Place” in the theater, where the impeccable sound designers intended for it to be seen. No doubt there were aural nuances I missed, not to mention the experience of a clattering movie audience being compelled to unanimously shut its trap. But as someone who listens to so much music in any given week that, sadly, I’m too often numb to the inherent wonder of piping remarkable music through my ears, when Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” appeared, reader, for that moment, I was reminded of music’s God-given miracle.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Nice review here. I completely agree with you on the film's effective use of silence. I so appreciated that this didn't rely on those easy jump scares you mentioned. It was great to see this in theaters, but I'm glad the sound translated at home as well.